‘Father Abe’ by James McBride

Father Abe by James McBride, 2017

The magic trick:

Realistic dialogue mixed with classic storytelling rooted in imagination

We wrap up our week of reading stories by African-American authors with one from the man of the moment: James McBride.

That’s right, he of the current Oprah Book Club selection, Deacon King Kong. Another of his novels recently was optioned to one of the streaming services as a series too.

Naturally, we here at SSMT are most interested in his short stories, and we a good one to highlight today.

“Father Abe” takes us back to the final days of the Civil War, with a group of African-American Union soldiers camped in Richmond.

McBride has a gift for creating scenes that are imaginative and realistic at the same time.

I think it has something to do with a classic storytelling style – a nearly sequences series of cause-and-effect events – that doesn’t attempt realism, paired with dialogue and feelings that feels true to life.

The result is a very interesting mix not unlike Charles Dickens or the films of Spike Lee.

And that’s quite a trick on McBride’s part.

The selection:

The sergeant, a huge, friendly-faced Negro, rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, stooped down, and scooped up the child with big, muscled arms, picking up Little Abe like he was an infant. He sat on the large pipe with the kid in his lap as the other soldiers crowed in. “What you doin’ here, boy?”

“I’m looking for my pa,” he said.

“Who’s your pa? He got a name?”

“Abe Lincoln.”

The men burst out laughing. Several clapped Little Abe on the back.

“Father Abe? That’s a good choice, boy.”

“I’d give five whole dollars to see Father Abe, chile.”

“Best man in the world, your pa! God bless him.”

The sergeant frowned. He took a lantern from a fellow soldier and held it to the boy’s face. Now they could see him clearly. The white features. The curly hair. The brown skin. “Gosh,” one soldier said. “He’s a regular buckaroo.”

More laughter. The sergeant grew serious. “Be quiet,” he said. He sighed and looked around. “Anybody know this child?”

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